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Defending Human Rights in Kosovo: Interview with Marek Antoni Nowicki

March 8, 2005


Marek Antoni Nowicki, the UN Ombudsperson for Kosovo, is a leading European defender of human rights and author of 30 books in his native Poland on the subject. Mr. Nowicki’s experience and expertise relate specifically to the area of European human rights.

In 1982, during Poland’s period of martial law, he helped create an underground human rights watchdog group, and went on later to become president of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. Before coming to Kosovo in July of 2000, he served for 7 years in Strasbourg at the European Commission for Human Rights.

In the following interview with director Christopher Deliso, conducted on Sunday, Mr. Nowicki discusses the history of the ombudsperson’s office in Kosovo, and explains how this institution has become – unlike other parts of the UNMIK apparatus – a trusted and frequently-consulted one for the people of Kosovo, regardless of their ethnic or religious differences. He also touches on current issues such as the wintertime electricity cut-offs, the prospective for further violence in Kosovo, and explains why the success of his institution depends on having a strong local presence.

Christopher Deliso: Mr. Nowicki, you have been here for quite some time – 5 years now. Can you tell us how this came about, your arrival and the creation of the ombudsperson’s office?

Marek Antoni Nowicki: The first time I was in Kosovo was as an official candidate for the not yet operational ombudsperson post. This was exactly 5 years ago, in March 2000. The regulation on establishing the institution was signed on June 30th by then-UNMIK head Bernard Kouchner, and two weeks later he appointed me and I have been here ever since.

There had of course been different steps taken before and after [my arrival] in order to make this institution. It finally became operational in November 2000, and at the opening I was provided by law a mandate of 2 years and, if there is a possibility, for more.

CD: So, how do you renew your position? Are you elected, or can you be appointed forever, or-

MN: Actually, now I am still on my second mandate because last year’s political developments [i.e., the March riots] prolonged me into a third year. My current mandate will expire on 10 July of this year.

CD: Your case is quite unusual because almost no one in the UNMIK or KFOR administrations of the “old days,” the 1999-2000 period right after the bombing campaign, is still to be found in Kosovo. Most international staffs have changed several times since then.

MN: Yes, when we speak of people who held senior appointments, not many are left. Maybe I am the only one, I don’t know.

CD: From your perspective, then, as someone who has seen the situation change over the years, you can give some insight into the following question. It’s quite obvious that Kosovo’s public has become less and less happy with the internationals. The situation has obviously changed dramatically since 1999. What have been UNMIK’s biggest mistakes?

MN: It’s not so easy to speak about mistakes in these terms. Part of the problem was that from very early on, the estimations, in my view, were too much supporting independence [as Kosovo’s final status]… in a sense, in the beginning there were signs, too many and too clear, from the international community that the final outcome would definitely be independence, and not some other solution. Because of this, as time passes, the Albanians have naturally grown more and more impatient. They understood [the NATO bombing] as a war of liberation and their chance to become independent.

However, it’s not such a simple case, when there are plenty of serious obstacles to be confronted still. When you have the living situation as it is, high unemployment, so many people unable to make a living, all these problems show that in reality the situation is much more difficult.

CD: But in terms of the locals’ negative perceptions of UNMIK, how has this come about?

MN: During the earlier period, one could get the impression, maybe it was even an objective factor – I do not speak about the situation now, when such a big part of the administrative competencies have been transferred from the international to the local administration – that since it was all in the hands of UNMIK, the implication for local people was that foreigners, strangers basically, were running things. Since the administration reached all the way down to the municipal level, it created an uneasy feeling that the government was being run by people who were not one’s own…

In this case, there were big difficulties with differences caused by the “international factor” – linguistic, social and cultural differences.

In such a situation, I don’t speak about everybody, but yes, one could perceive a certain colonial attitude. To be comfortable with any government, you must feel like your people are running it- and for the Kosovar population, these [internationals] sometimes seemed to be coming from another planet.

CD: Let’s talk now about some of the current problems. What is the situation with the electricity cut-offs that have been ongoing this winter?

MN: Yes. I received around the 22nd of February an official paper describing the situation, and at that time there were around 40 villages and neighborhoods cut off.

CD: As I understand, this has affected both Serbian and Albanian villages –

MN: Yes, of that number four villages were Serbian, and the rest, Albanian. But when one goes through the recent media, one might think that it is a [purely Serbian] problem. So actually it’s not just an ethnic issue.

CD: In any case, all ethnic or other dimensions aside, why would any company do this in the dead of winter? What does this say about human rights?

MN: We raised exactly this question. On the one hand, the timing is obviously a factor for them – 20 degrees below zero is the best time to exert pressure, after all. Asking people to pay their bills or else be cut off is less likely to work on a sunny day in May, of course.

But more seriously, from the human rights perspective, this is not really an attitude I am happy with. The electricity problem in Kosovo is a very complicated one with many different aspects, and an electricity company is not capable of dealing with or appreciating all of them.

CD: But considering the millions upon millions poured into Kosovo since 1999 by the international community, how could there still be any problems with something as basic as electricity?

MN: Today’s problems are the results of five years of an anarchic situation. In some places, nobody was able to check consumption, or there was no proper metering. In others, bills were never received by people who fled their homes, for example. There are many social and political aspects, sometimes of security even.

Now, I understand, there are certain discussions to have an electricity supply subcontractor from Serbia work with the Kosovo electric company in order to serve predominantly Serbian areas of Kosovo, and thus create a certain order in this respect.

CD: Alright, but even aside from that, there are still basic problems in Pristina itself with random blackouts.

MN: Yes, but they are not as frequent as they used to be. Hey, we are happy with 5 hours on, 1 hour off. Most days there are not serious problems. But there are still sometimes those 3 hours on, 2 hours off kind of days.

One should stress that until [the NATO bombing of] 1999, there were never serious problems with the electricity here-

CD: Kosovo was I believe actually an electricity exporter-

MN: Yes, and some experts, Serbian, were amazed and asked how is it possible that it could now produce so little electricity.

CD: Well, the Kosovo electric company is run by a foreign director, no? Do they take any responsibility for any human rights issues concerning their customers?

MN: Yes, an Irish company, and as far as I understand they behave purely as a business. They are there to provide electricity and as for the social, political or whatever other issues they leave that to the government, UNMIK, etc.

CD: So let’s get back to your specific tasks with the Ombudsperson’s Office. Do you have a figure regarding how many complaints your office has handled since 2000?

MN: Per year, we receive 1,500-2,000 cases. This has added up to about 10,000 in all so far. But don’t forget also that these are just the formal cases. I receive lot of people who lodge a complaint or want to be heard on a certain issue, but who don’t actually go through with making a formal case. And then I have the ex officio procedures related to problems of entire groups. When I speak out for the rights of say, a Serbian village, or Albanian IDPs from north Mitrovica who now must live on the south side, how many people or complaints does that represent? In such cases, we are talking about several thousand people.

CD: Your job is basically to hold the government, UN and local, accountable for not abusing the rights of their citizens. Have you ever come up against opposition or intimidation in trying to do your job, from either the internationals or the local government?

MN: No, fortunately this has never happened. I’d like to stress that our institution has quite high respect among local people – Albanians, Serbs and all the others. In the current environment, it is not so common for an international institution to enjoy such respect here. So I am satisfied with our position in society.

What is important is that the people now consider this institution to be their own… they have found a place for us in their environment. For example, you have certain Albanian TV serials, fiction shows, where the ombudsperson’s office is mentioned in the story! So if they are talking about us like this it means that we have become part of their life to some extent.

CD: That’s great. But on a related topic, have you ever felt that people coming up to you with complaints were actually trying to manipulate the office, for political or other goals? For example, in Macedonia complaints of human rights violations have sometimes been forwarded illegitimately, by criminals, or those with a political motive, etc.

MN: OK, but even the biggest criminal must have some basic human rights. It really depends on the substance of the complaint- if I examine the case and believe that there is any substance to the complaint, I will support it. I don’t look at who is complaining. One should be careful, of course. In theory, the Ombudsperson’s office could be used as a political tool, but this hasn’t been our experience.

CD: Your institution places a big emphasis on maintaining a presence not just in Pristina but throughout the smaller towns and villages of Kosovo. How important is it for your work to have this presence on the ground?

MN: This is one of the most important parts of the job. First of all, my approach is that everyone in Kosovo, not just the people in Pristina, must have access to the ombudsman. The institution must be organized so that no one can complain that they are unable to make a complaint.

So for this reason we have field offices. Now there are five, actually five and a half, counting a smaller office in north Mitrovica. It used to be four and a half but recently we established a new one in Gracanica to serve the needs of the mostly Serbian community there.

By definition, our institution needs to stay close to the people, and our staff work and travel around Kosovo a lot. So we cover the territory as much as possible, but even more than that we also have phone hotlines for IDPs who are not present, who maybe now live elsewhere in Serbia and Montenegro. And prisoners, people deprived of their liberty have special ombudsman mailboxes.

CD: That said, what opinion do you have of the international politicians, advisers, think-tanks, etc. who make very influential decisions or reports, but who rarely visit Kosovo?

MN: Of course, this is a problem. But it’s not only the [foreign-based] people, you even have some parts of the UNMIK leadership who never leave Pristina to see other places in Kosovo.

This is something I consider extremely important. When I would really like to know what’s going on somewhere, I believe that I should talk to the common people there. Especially, I always try to appreciate and understand how things look from their perspective. This is the role of the Ombudsperson’s office.

We don’t play a political role. Often I’m able to grasp the main problem at hand because I don’t go about it in a political way. When you address people’s personal grievances, their suffering, you are getting the truth.

CD: And you have made local visitations part of the institution’s framework, yes?

MN: Yes. We have free times when anyone can walk into the office, called ‘open days,’ both here in Pristina and in our local offices throughout Kosovo, 5-7 times a month. These are organized and advertised in advance so people can be prepared to express their grievances. I like to be very much involved, because if for some time I couldn’t participate, I would feel I’m losing my ear, to put it a certain way.

CD: To return to the previous issue, what do you think when some foreign politician will make a big statement, or some think-tank will come out with a grand pronouncement, and they aren’t even here? I ask because since such things can be influential they might therefore have potentially dangerous repercussions.

MN: Well, of course I read all the reports. But at the same time I try to base all my judgments on the smell of the ground, to put it another way. Kosovo is very small, but also very complex.

So I would be very hesitant to draft an article or raise any conclusions with having the smell of the ground. I couldn’t do that from Warsaw, Paris or any other place. One must be here for some time first. If some one asked me how long, I would say a minimum of one year, to know what one is talking about.

Now, I don’t want to say that it’s impossible for someone to come to the right conclusions if they are far away; just to say that in general it’s definitely better to try to be as close to the place you are writing about as possible.

CD: In your opinion, is there a likelihood of further violence such as was seen in last March, or is Kosovo over that?

MN: In my view, there is still a certain risk. It will depend on other political developments. If things are going smoothly, in the sense that they follow the expectations of the Kosovo Albanians, the risk is of course much more limited.   But if things are not of this kind, everything could happen. This means that there is the risk of violence, depending on the process.

CD: Last March there were initial claims from the Albanian side that the violence was spontaneous. But this was clearly not the case. So if things do not go “smoothly,” and there is future violence, is it likely to be organized also?

MN: Well, if somebody would like to deliberately disturb the situ
ation, or organize certain protests or more serious things like riots, such things would not be possible [to be supported] unless the people were unhappy and discontented with things. For violence to occur, you have to have a certain social situation that is about to explode.

CD: So, in a sense, does this mean that the Albanian politicians are justified in saying that the violence was bound to happen, because of the prevailing social conditions, and they couldn’t be held accountable?

MN: I don’t know if I would go so far, but there are serious problems indeed. The society is young – the youngest in all of Europe, in fact – and if they do not see enough prospects for life and for a good economy, as anywhere in the world, there is risk of despair, and then a risk of violence.

CD: All in all, finally, do you feel like your work makes a difference? Do you think that you have helped improve things for people in Kosovo?

MN: I have an anecdote that shows the feeling people have for us now. At the very beginning of the institution, in early 2001, an Albanian man came into the office to present a complaint. But before he explained his case, he said, “first, I must tell you why it is so important that we have an ombudsman.” I was curious as to what he would say. “Yes?” I said. The man replied, “since that time [that the institution came] we do not feel alone anymore.”

Now, I consider this a motto for what we do. This occurred at the beginning of 2001, when the land was very much still in international hands, and the feeling of the people was really that they too were in the hands of the internationals – and not only that, but that they did not have any protection or place to turn to where they could openly make a complaint if they had a problem with the authorities.

Now, four years later, you very frequently can see our advertisements on the local television channels. At the beginning of the spot I appear and say something like, ‘I am the ombudsman, I am here to protect your rights.’ And then the next day we will get someone coming into the office and saying, “you’re the guy telling me every night on TV that you are for protecting my rights, well here’s how my rights have been taken away…”

I don’t want to overestimate our importance, but it’s now become so natural and so normal for people that there is an ombudsperson, and that he can play an indispensable part in public life.

But now we have to think about what comes next. On the 10th of July my mandate ends. What then for this institution? Will it continue with an international person like me, and remain independent from Kosovo governmental structures, or will it become part of the Kosovo government and be headed by a local?

CD: But if a local were appointed, wouldn’t it kind of defeat the purpose, considering the low level of inter-ethnic trust?

MN: Well precisely, yes, that is one of the questions I have raised. This is the sort of question that has to be addressed. But no matter who it is, in my view, the ombudsperson position must continue even until Kosovo’s final status is decided- and probably even for some time after that.

CD: Would you like to extend your mandate in July, or will you hand over the reins to someone else then?

MN: This I leave an open question. But whether I stay or not is not so important as the question of principle- whether the ombudsperson will be an international or local individual- this is what must be decided soon.

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